Performance has been instrumental in critiquing faith and encouraging freethinking. In contemporary discourse, it is important to ask what performance is, to determine whether it is progressive or regressive.
If performance is the action following conception, construction, and comprehension of an idea, the idea should submit itself to the holy trinity of the muses for blessings – for all undertakings must be blessed – as it strives to be art.
There is something altogether sinister about such a formulation. For one thing, it reinforces the traditional values of art espoused by the European Renaissance, wherein art was a celebration of Western religions, Western myths and doctrines, and Western faiths. In other words, to art is to faith. For another, it restricts itself to the composition of the Christian Trinity, thereby elevating faith above freedom. As it so happens, or at least if Hesiod is to be believed, Zeus’ libido ensured that the number of muses trebled, breaking free of the constraints of any holy or unholy, necessary or unnecessary trinity.
While fine arts, beholden to tithes, can often be found wanting in secularism, performance has fought to free itself from the constrictions of faith. Distinguishing where that freedom is artistically performative, and where it is performative behaviour, can often be a good barometer for progressive freedom and regressive bigotry disguised as freedom.
An irrefutable fact about performance is the multitudinous comprehensions of an idea. The oral, written, or equivalent expression of the idea is the first layer of comprehension. A second layer is the understanding required to perform it. The performance of it adds a third layer, which is passed on to the audience who receives the performance. That reception itself adds a further layer, since it is not uncommon for the performance to be comprehended differently by the performer and the observer. Engagement is, thus, a key component in the full realisation of performance.
Relaying the performance to someone who was not present at its time would similarly add two more layers of comprehension. Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” speech is a classic example of the convolutions that occur as a result. In this age of memes and GIFs, most struggle to get past the first line: “All the world’s a stage.” A few more, driven by the desire to appear to be erudite hashtag influencers rather than the herds of the influenced, will go a step further, adding, “And all the men and women merely players.” The understanding between solely the first line and the first two lines taken together is scarcely different. It paints – or they paint – a bleak picture of human life reduced to a dystopian puppet-show. The warm and cuddly internet sage rests after speaking this truth (for they are all truth-speakers).
Blasphemy laws have long been a British tradition. While it may come as a surprise to learn that they remain on the books in various forms in the United Kingdom (directly so in Northern Ireland), it is less of a surprise that blasphemy and “hurting religions sentiments” are severely punishable criminal offenses in former colonies. Sadly, this is true not only of former British colonies but also of former colonies of other European colonisers.
The performer is only getting started. They take this premise to its conclusion, upon which the realisation will dawn on the army of one audience who came for the memes and GIFs but stayed for something approaching a true kernel of truth that the performed speech was a testimony about life. Before Camus atheistically argued for imagining Sisyphus happy, Shakespeare had written of pastoral existential monotony, a prescription performed for over four hundred years. If the devil is in the comprehension, then it is small wonder that fundamentalism demands it be eschewed in favour of forced, narrow-minded conformity over critical thinking, the broadening of minds, and, god forbid, freethinking.
In 1985, Emo Philips took Sisyphus being happy as a premise in a performance that gifted the world with what is often considered to be the best joke about faith. What begins as a theistic Sisyphus talking a suicidal man down from killing himself because of God’s love, continues as a repartee that establishes common ground between them on the basis of faith, and ends with the would-be philosopher killing the suicidal man (an irony that only adds a humour multiplier to the joke) because of the minutest of differences in their faiths. It is a transcendental joke because not only is it applicable if the two people are of two completely different religions but also if they are of the exact same religion, even the same sect, with nary a difference in how their faiths have been comprehended to them.
That faiths are comprehended for and to them is an important point the joke makes. The conversing duo never arrive at discussing what they actually think, for thinking is the antithesis of faith. Their disagreement and its violent, if wish-fulfilling, apogee arise from what others have thought and comprehended on their behalf: their agency had been wilfully and willingly surrendered, for submission is a prerequisite of faith. Philips saw reason to address his joke in 2005, following a poll voting it the best joke about religion of all time, in light of the British government’s intention to outlaw offensive religious jokes (what Philips said, including the full text of the joke, can be found here).
Blasphemy laws have long been a British tradition. While it may come as a surprise to learn that they remain on the books in various forms in the United Kingdom (directly so in Northern Ireland), it is less of a surprise that blasphemy and “hurting religions sentiments” are severely punishable criminal offenses in former colonies. Sadly, this is true not only of former British colonies but also of former colonies of other European colonisers. Previously used by Christian authoritarians in defence of white Christendom, these colonial era laws and their mutated descendants are now used by majoritarian forces to assert theological dominance and pseudo-cultural hegemonies in home countries.
Therefore, it may be commonplace for Muslims to use “Alhamdulillah” and “Inshallah” as punchlines or jokes among themselves and for Hindus to do the same with “Om Tat Sat” or “Jai Shri Ram”, but for a performer to do so (let alone perform an adaptation of Philips’ joke), runs the serious risk of putting them in mortal danger. Setting aside the wrongs of cultural appropriation, wherein the majority – as the white, Christian West has positioned itself to be globally – punches down on minorities in the guise of humour, it is unconscionable for an artistic performance by the minority punching up at the majority on national, regional, and international levels to result in death. Yet, it is allowed to happen, for the joke is lost on the world.
Performative behaviour, however, is an entirely different matter. On 28 June 2023, Sweden, a bastion of human rights ensconced within Scandinavia, a bastion of freedoms, saw the latest incident of public Quran burning outside the Stockholm Central Mosque. This was a legal act, protected under the freedoms of expression, assembly, and demonstration enshrined in the Swedish constitution. The police granted it permission as such, and guarded the performer as he carried it out.
It is difficult to untangle this action from contemporary geopolitics, evident in the aftermath filled with outrage from various quarters, yet, in the interest of objective deconstruction, one must. As performance goes, this is derivative rather than innovative or provocative. The history of book burning is almost as long and old as the history of the written word, and what it has shown, time and again, is a propensity to forcibly narrow minds, to enforce subjugation, to trap and ensnare within oppression without end. The identity of the book does not change the fact that burning a book, an inanimate compilation of thoughts, ideas, and comprehensions freely animated, is anti-intellectualism writ large. Choosing that as an act of freedom, against the testimony of history such that it requires a suspension not only of reason, but also irony, is at best, questionable and ill-advised, at worst, irredeemably moronic.
Moreover, the performance was made possible by the deployment of the majoritarian state’s homogeneous machinery, tone deaf to the true meanings of equity and equality, against a vulnerable minority community that regularly faces bigotry and exclusion. There are no layers of comprehension to such a performance, for as little thought went into and formed around it as it provoked. What there is, instead, is a precedence of performing this act in the name of freedom, documenting the predicted outrage of the targeted minority community as evidence of said community opposing freedom, and privileging oppressors by curbing freedoms for all in the name of freedom. It is effective enough for the neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats to have used it precisely in that manner: campaigning on blatant bigotry directed at immigrants ahead of a general election, becoming the second largest party in parliament as a result, diligently working on dismantling systemically safeguarded freedoms.
This, then, is regressive performative behaviour, to be comprehended for what it is – a strategic act of a superior upon an inferior, devised to elicit a specific response from the inferior that will allow the superior to enhance their superiority manifold through legalised oppression. The journey from the ghettos to Auschwitz-Birkenau is considerably shorter than the distance that separate them.
When it comes to blasphemy, performative behaviour rarely finds itself in its crosshairs, whereas artistic performance is often its first target. The issue is twofold. On the one hand, blasphemy is a legal construct that is simultaneously based on, enables, and reaffirms persecution. By its very nature, it is not an instrument that is available to the down-trodden, which the minority, without exception, always is. To the faithful, faith is supreme and superior to all else. Religion and its god(s) are omnipotent. Blasphemy upends this by reducing faith to an inferior object requiring staunch defence.
Rather than seeing this for the insult that it is, the faithful, when amassed into a majority, abuse it to attack manufactured or perceived threats to faith. Applying reason would necessitate the faithful to uphold the unquestionable supremacy of faith as they see it, thereby forcing them to accept that neither any performance nor any criticism could ever threaten faith. Alas, the fundamentalist streak of faith – which is reductive enough to easily become a populist convenience in service of majoritarianism – has removed it from reason, and the two must never entwine.
On the other hand, artistic performance is a progressive act while performative behaviour is a regressive act. The former is of and from the minority, the latter of and from the majority. Performance puts a premium on thought. To think is to be free, and freedom removes the control imposed by faith. That is the real threat to the majority. Persecution is a one-way street, forever flowing downwards from the dominant to the vulnerable. Performative behaviour, as a product of majoritarianism, similarly belongs to the rarefied sphere that reigns from the top, making subjects of those existing below. Hence, performative behaviour cannot fall foul of blasphemy, while performance will always be viewed with suspicion.
Whenever performance veers towards hate speech, the sacrosanct freedoms that performance hold dear, without which performance would not be possible, are surrendered, leaving behind artistically performative for performative behaviour. The oppressive, authoritarian right thrives on this, using free speech and expression as an argument for defeating free speech and expression. From Western imperialism and Eastern home-grown authoritarianism built with the colonial master’s tools, to the idiot’s “freedoms” gleaned from performative behaviour, as evident in Silicon Valley’s self-proclaimed geniuses a la Twitter’s Elon Musk and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, freethinking is a martyr to the rise of faith-based myopia.
There is an ideal twenty-first century in which “God save the king” is the funniest joke about faith by virtue of praying to a non-denominational non-existent deity (in whom no one believes) to save the patriarchal embodiment of oppression that has gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Instead, the world has riffled through the many alternate universes only to settle on one where that is the national anthem for one of the self-styled leaders of the free world, which, in reality, is a dying empire of anti-intellectual dinosaurs that, in its refusal to go gently into the good night, is overseeing the worldwide lynching of freethinkers and freethought alike.